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The World as Text: Cosmologies of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i Juan R. I. Cole Studia Islamica, No. 80. (1994), pp. 145-163. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0585-5292%281994%290%3A80%3C145%3ATWATCO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-R Studia Islamica is currently published by Maisonneuve & Larose.

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The World as Text :

Cosmologies

of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i

In the late twentieth century West, with the influence of a postmodernism that often insists on the "textuality" of the world, the letter-mysticism of the Gnostics, the Shi'ite Muslims, and the Kabbalists often raises metaphysical issues that sound remarkably contemporary. These thinkers saw the world as constituted by divine letters, a profound reversal of the tendency in mainstream Western philosophy to privilege the spoken over the written word, which one postmodern philosopher has castigated as "logocentrism" ('1. In this alternative tradition, as we shall see, the cosmos itself is nothing more or less than a text, spelled out by letters that are also understood as the basic phonetic units of the language. Even the oral command of God, "Be !" is interpreted as the enunciation of letter-phonemes that in turn generate further metaphysical marks. The written word is therefore not seen as posterior to spoken language, nor parasitic upon it, but is rather coeval with and inseparable from speech and from contingent being. A belief in the textuality of the world and a willingness to see the meaning of texts as extraordinarily elastic are probably all these ancient and medieval thinkers have in common with postmodernism, but their dissent from the emphasis on and primacy of the oral word common (1) Jacques Derrida, Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore :Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 49 ; idem, Limited Inc, trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston : Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 20. See also Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism (New York : Continuum, 1984), pp. 52-53.


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in the philosophical and theological traditions of the Western religions (including Islam) raises the question of what spiritual meaning their graphocentrism or writing-centeredness held for them. It is no accident that the inferiority of the written was challenged from the margins of mainstream thought by these mystics. The great scholar of the Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, pointed out that on the one hand the theosophers reaffirm and conserve traditional symbols, but on the other they attempt to reinvigorate them, for symbols lose their immediate existential force over time as they become commonplaces c21.Especially in severe monotheistic religions, where myth has been suppressed, a mystic can make a great impact by appealing to images that have something of the mythical about them ; but in this attempt to recapture the original excitement and impact of symbols great masters risk raising questions of religious authority, risk inspiring believers to question stagnant institutions and practices. Mystics innovate by employing existing symbols in original ways, or inventing new symbols that can carry traditional meanings. The puzzle of letter-centered philosophy requires us to wonder if the alphabet itself can be a symbol. Paul Ricceur argued that in attempting to understand the internal meaning of symbolism, one must search among its most primitive expressions. For there, "the prerogatives of reflective consciousness are subordinated to the cosmic aspect of the hierophanies, to the nocturnal aspect of dream productions, or finally to the creativity of the poetic word" c31. In short, the authentic symbol has these three dimensions of the cosmic, the oneiric and the poetic. In religions of the book can sacred letters, the stuff of scripture and of meaning itself, bear all three burdens ? One approach to making symbols new is combining two of them in an original manner, and reading the two against one another. This is what I would argue Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (1753-18261, founder of the mystical Shaykhi order, does in regard to the images of the world-tree and letter symbolism in Islamic cosmology. In an essay on cosmology, he elaborates upon the two ancient, powerful symbols of the world-tree and the world as written text, as a way of elucidating a saying attributed to the P r o ~ h e Muhammad t and of de~ictingthe emanation of the universe from ~ ' o d Shaykh . Ahmad addres'ses thve perennial contradictions between nature and culture, body and soul, stasis and change, and one question we must ask here is by what means he resolves these oppositions and establishes the cosmic and spiritual harmony that is the hallmark of a mystical system such as his. (2) Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York : Schocken Books, 19651, pp. 7-10, 21-23. (3) Paul Ricceur. The Synzbolism ofEi1il (Boston : Beacon Press, 1969), p. 10 ; cf. pp. 11-18.


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The speculative writings of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i of Eastern Arabia constitute one of the last great flowerings of Muslim theosophy before the impact of modern European thought in the nineteenth century (4).He came to consciousness at a tragic time for Shi'ite Islam, which was battered in the eighteenth century by the Sunni Afghan invasion of Shi'ite Iran and dethronement of Shi'ism as the state religion, by the anti-Shi'ite Wahhabi tribes of Arabia, and by growing Russian and British power. What the French expounder of Islamic mysticism, Henri Corbin, termed "creative imagination" plays a central part in Shaykh Ahmad's writings, apparent in his invocation of mythic themes and in his appeal to multicolored and detailed, mandala-like images that serve to focus the soul in its adoring approach to the divine beloved (5). He innovated within, quarrelled with, and pushed to its limits the highly sophisticated heritage of Sufi mysticism and Shi'ite gnosis fitfan) that had crystallized in the seventeenth-century School of Isfahan. In addition, Shaykh Ahmad tapped into a little-known stream of indigenous Eastern Arabian thought (6). His use of symbolic language captured the imagination of tens of thousands in the Arab East, Iran, and India, and the controversial, mystical Shaykhi order came to be established in his name, largely after his death. Out of this matrix later developed the messianic Babi movement and the Baha'i faith, a new world religion, suggesting that al-Ahsa'i's ideas, while they (4) Al-Ahsa'i, a native of Eastern Arabia educated in Bahrain and the theological centers of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, spent the last twenty years of his life in Iran, mainly Yazd and Kermanshah, where he received the protection and patronage of the princes of the Qaiar dynasty, which restored Shi'ism as Iran's state religion. In Iran, he became much revered by the people. H e rejected an offer from Fath-'Ali Shah (r. 1798-1834) to reside in the capital, Tehran, as a royal favorite, for fear his commitment to justice for the ordinary folk would eventually lead him into conflict with the court. For the tradition of Iranian spirituality and the place of Shaykhism in it, see Henri Corbin, ~ g c o l eShaykhie en Thdologie Shi'ite (Tehran : Taban, 19671, idem, En Islam Iranien, 4 vols (Paris : Gallimard, 1971-72) and Mangol Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in &ar Iran (Syracuse : Syracuse University Press, 1982), pp. 1-58. For Shaykh Ahmad, see A.L.M. Nicolas, Essai szrr le cheikhisme, vol. 1 (Paris : Paul Geuthner, 1910) ; Vahid Rafati, "The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi'i Islam" (Ph. D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1979) ; and Denis MacEoin, S.V. "Ahsa'i, Shaikh Ahmad b. Zayn al-Din", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 4 vols (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983"). (5) Henry Corbin, Creatic~eImagination in the Strfism of Ibn 'Arabi,trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1969). (6) I now have ample textual proof that Shaykh Ahmad is much influenced by theosopher Ibn Abi Jumhur al-Ahsa'i (b. 1434) and the great Bahraini thinkers of the Safarid period (1501-1722) ; see :Juan R.I. Cole, "Rival Empires of Trade and Imami Shi'ism in Eastern Arabia, 1300-1800", IntemationalJot~malofMiddle East Sttrdies 19(1987) : 177-204 ; W. Madelung, "Ibn Abi Djumhur al-Ahsa'i", Encyclopaedia of Islam, 5 vols (Leiden : E.J. Brill, 1954, 2nd edn.) (hereafter EI 2) ; W . Madelung, "Ibn Abi Gumhur al-Ahsa'i's Synthesis of Kalam, Philosophy and Sufism", in La significance du bas Moyen Age duns I'histoire et la ctrlture dtr monde mustrlman, Acres du S' Congres de I'Union Europeenne des Arabisants et Islamisants (Aix-en-Provence, 19781, pp. 147-158.


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could be taken in a conservative direction as occurred among Kerman Shaykhis, also contained radical potentialities ('). Shaykh Ahmad's short treatise on cosmological symbolism was penned in response to an inquiry from Mirza Muhammad 'Ali Mudarris (d. 1825) of Yazd, who desired a commentary on a saying attributed to the Prophet : "God wrote a Text (kitabah) two thousand years before H e created the universe, on a myrtle leaf that H e caused to grow. H e placed it upon the Throne, then called out : '0 community of Muhammad - peace be upon him and his House - My compassion transcends My wrath. I have given to you before you even asked, and forgiven you before you sought forgiveness. Whoso among you bears witness that there is no God but Me, and that Muhammad is My servant and messenger. I shall usher him into paradise by reason of my compassion" (9. Mirza Muhammad 'Ali asked Shavkh Ahmad a series of auestions about this saying, and we shall concentrate on his cosmological rather than his soteriological concerns. What did the Prophet mean by this Text, he inquires, and by its having preceded the creation by two thousand years ? What did he intend by the myrtle and its leaf, by the growth of the latter and its placement upon the throne ? How did God address persons not yet created, or bestow something upon them for which they were unable to ask at the time (O) ? Shaykh Ahmad takes this saying of the Prophet as an opportunity to build an imaginative metaphysics upon the main symbols to which it refers, of the preexistent text, the leaf, and the throne. H e replies that the primeval divine Text is a prior record of humans' fate, their nourishment (7) Abbas Amanat, Reszirrection and Renewal: T / JMaking ~ of the Babi Moue~nentin m a r Iran, 1844-1850(Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1989) ; Peter Smith, The Babi and Baha? Religions :From Messianic Sbi'ism to a World Religion (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press. 1987). (8) Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa9i/Say)-id Mirza Muhammad ' ~ l Mudarris i in Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i, Jawdmi'al-kalim, 2 vols (Tabriz : Muhammad Taqi Nakhjavani, 1273-1276). I, i , 8 : 135-37 ; Mudarris, a prominent cleric of the strict constructionist or Akhbari school of jurisprudence in Yazd, died ca. 1825 : see Moojan Momen, The Works of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsay (Baha'i Studies Bulletin Monograph 1) (Newcastle upon Tyne : Stephen Lambden, 1991), pp. 133-34. I have been unable to locate the source attributing this saying to the Prophet. (9) Mudarris also asks about the way entry into heaven is made dependent in this saying on bearing witness both to God's unity and to Muhammad's prophethood. H e remarks that some say the first statement would suffice, whereas others maintain that even witnessing to both in and of itself would not be sufficient. In his reply, Shaykh Ahmad admits that the oral reports from the Imams and the Prophet are somewhat contradictory on this score. In his own view, a key requirement 1s sincerity of belief, and he thinks sincerity would require that one believe, not only in God and the Prophet, but also in 'Ali and the other Imams, that o n e love them and hate their enemies, and that one practice the other four pillars of Islam, as well. This narrow and somewhat sectarian view of soteriology is typical of Shaykhism, and contrasts with the universalism and tolerance of the movement that later greLv out of i t , the Baha'i Faith, ~vhichmaintains that all the great world religions are valid paths to God.


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(rizq) in this life, their being, what shall befall them, and other delimitations, which collectively he terms "creative design" (al-handasah al-ijadiyyah). This Text, he says, took the form of a Leaf, made up of lines, words, letters, points and vowellings. Shaykh Ahmad imagines the universe as having had a preexistent sort of genetic code, consisting of written language on the form of a leaf, whereby God shaped the subsequent development of the world. Here the connection between the two cosmological symbols, of world as text and world as tree, is made through a homonym. As in English, the Arabic word for leaf (waraq) can refer either to the leaf of a book or the leaf of a tree. Shaykh Ahmad employs Neoplatonic and Avicennian terminology (not always the same thing), usually speaking of the first emanation from God as the Universal Intellect and the second as the Universal Soul (lo). H e sometimes interposes between these two an intermediate emanation, the Universal Spirit. Further emanations are Universal Nature and Universal Matter. The Leaf emanates from the Universal Spirit, and subsists on the plane of the Universal Soul. It thus occupies a position between the higher, refined planes of Spirit and Intellect on the one hand, and on the other the lower, coarser planes of Nature and Matter. The primal Text, Shaykh Ahmad says, was initially in pure simplicity and connected to the Universal Spirit, but then God gathered it together into a coherent, unified collection (majmzi3, such that the lowest of the words, letters, points and vowellings required a relationship to the corporeal body. The leaftext is pulled in two directions. Its simpler, prior aspect is drawn upward toward Universal Spirit, and its later, complex, assembled aspect is attracted downward by gross matter. These two forces, operating upon the Leaf, explain its shape. It is elongated, slender and comes to a point at the top, where it is attracted toward the subtle and exalted empyrean, but broad and thick at the base, being pulled at there by the low, crude material world. Shaykh Ahmad explains the green coloration of the leaf, saying that the Universal Spirit sheds upon it a simple, sublime yellow light, whereas the dense writing on it is black because of its multiplicity, and the combination of black and yellow yields green, just as does blue and saffron. (Shaykh Ahmad's color combinations often depend, not simply on principles of optics, but also on chemical and alchemical intereactions, recalling the conviction of his contemporary, G e t h e , that "chemical colors" are a distinct category of chromatic phenomena). It should be noted here that in the graphocentric cosmos simple letters are superior to complex sentences, given the Neoplatonic emphasis on the goodness of the One. Thus, single letters are superior to semantics. (10) For the medieval background of Muslim philosophical and mystical cosmology, see Ian Richard Netton, Allah Transcendent: Stzidies in the Stnrctttre and Semiotrcs of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology (London : Routledge, 1989).


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The leaf grows from the myrtle tree, which is distinguished by the great length of its branches and its perfect straightness and symmetry. He mentions three great branches, those of meanings (maani), subtleties (raqE i'q), and forms (suwar). The branches of subtlety represent an intermediate stage between the branches of meanings on the one hand, and the branches of forms on the other. The branches of meanings are more fine and more symmetrical than the branches of subtlety, insofar as they have precedence in the emanation and actuality of the Text. The Prophet's statement that the preexistent Text precedes the creation by two thousand years recalls another putative saying, "I and 'Ali are from one light, and God created my spirit and that of 'Ali two thousand years before H e created the universe" ("1. A similar notion exists in the Jewish Haggadah about the Pentateuch ("1. Shaykh Ahmad explains that planes such as the Universal Intellect and the Universal Spirit subsist for a thousand years from their inception before the emanation of the next sphere. The meaning of a thousand years, Shaykh Ahmad explains, is a thousand types of nature and a thousand types of matter, each of which undergoes a peculiar evolution (tatawwur). The text comes at the beginning of a third sphere, the Universal Soul, after two thousand of these "years". Shaykh Ahmad builds these proliferant, evolving types of nature and matter from four principles : creation, nourishment, life and death, which are represented by the archangels Gabriel, Michael, Sarafiel (Isrcfi-l),and Azrael. Each of these four, in turn, has under it further principles. These include signs of the zodiac, colors (e.g. white for intellect, yellow for spirit) and metaphysical levels (mulk, malakzit, jabarzit). Under each of the four archangels are ninety lesser angels. Each of the types generated by these correspondences has a temporal dimension as well, and appears to represent some small portion of the two thousand years. Because of the multitude of these types and planes, Shaykh Ahmad avers, the fifth Imam, Muhammad Baqir, said that God created a thousand thousand worlds, and a thousand thousand Adams, and ours is the last of the worlds and the last of the Adams. The meaning of the Prophet's saying that God "grew" the Leaf, Shaykh Ahmad explains, is that the myrtle Leaf grows from the "soil" of this world, budding and stretching forth at the margins of being, where the cosmos starts to become subtle. He here appeals to the Qur'an verse, "Have they not seen how W e come to the land diminishing it in its extremities ?" (Qur'an 13:41). These extremities, the ends of the world, are where a transition begins from gross matter to the subtler realm of the forms of (11) Muhammad Muhsin Fayz Kashani, al-Kalimat al-Maknunah (Tehran : Farahani, 1963), p. 186. (12) Scholem, On the Kabbalah, p. 41.


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knowledge. These forms have a green hue, for green is the color of knowledge (as well as of soul), which is why they are referred to as the myrtle Leaf that God caused to grow in that earth. The emerald Forms at the borders of material being are identical to the Preserved Tablet, which he says is a microcosm of the universe subsisting in the imaginal world (a realm existing between the Platonic Forms and material reality). For the origins of human beings in the arboreal microcosm of the myrtle leaf, he quotes, "And God caused you to grow out of the earth" (Qur'an 71:17). When the Leaf is spoken of in terms of its origins, its emanation and actuality in preexistence, the referent of the metaphor is to the imaginal Forms. But if one speaks of the time after creation has occurred (he calls it a "second creation"), the Leaf is identified as the human form itself. Human beings, then, are themselves microcosms of the world-text, and contain within themselves the constitutive letters and divine attributes that fashion the universe. H e now comes to the meaning of placing the Leaf on the divine throne, which has four pillars, each a different color. The pillar on the left front of the throne is a green hue, here identified as the color of the soul (I3). The Leaf, that is the human forms in the Preserved Tablet, arose from and was constituted by this green light. It is the letters of that Text, which are reposited in it. This green light is the pillar of the throne, which explains why the Prophet said God placed it "on the throne". In short, he interprets this phrase to mean God "installed it on the throne". That the myrtle Leafhhrone pillar gives off the green light of Universal Soul recalls the saying in the kabbalistic Zohar that from the tree of life, which sustains all things, emanates a light that contains all colors (I4). The Tree of Being described by Andalusian mystic Muhyi'd-Din Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240) also gives off the Light of Muhammad, from which all other light derives (I5>. To explain the saying that God called the Muslims before their creation, Shaykh Ahmad refers to the scene found in the Qur'an and often evoked in Sufi mvstical literature, in which God assembles his creation before him in prdexistence and asks them "'Am I not your Lord ?' They say 'Yes (bald, we have borne witness."' (Qur'an 7:172). That he singled them out for his bestowal before they asked for it is a way of saying that when Being emanated forth, and became arranged within itself, some of its parts attained priority. This is because these parts had a greater receptive (13) Ahmad al-Ahsa2i/Ja'far b. Ahmad Nuvvab Yazdi, Jawami'al-Kalim, I, i, 7 : 131. (14) A.J. Wensinck, Tree and Bird as Cosmological Symbols in Western Asia (Amsterdam : Johannes Muller, 19211, p. 28 ; cf. Moshe Idel, Kabbalah : New Perspectiues (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1988), p. 124. (15) Muhyi'd-Din Ibn 'Arabi, Shajarat al-Kawn (Tree of Being), ed. Riyad al-'Abdu'llah (Beirut : Markaz al-'Arabi li'l-Kitab, 1984).


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faculty, and they became a first emanation. Because of their close connection with the beginning, it was fitting that they should receive the gift before asking orally, since the creation of those who came after them depended on their mediation. Thus, the Prophet, the Imams, and the Muslims generally represent the earliest differentiated portion of Being, and they therefore receive God's prevenient grace. In illustrating this principle, Shaykh Ahmad provides a parable, apparently drawing on his experiences as a villager in al-Hasa. Suppose, he says, you owned two plots of land, one of them contiguous to a water source, the other receiving water from the adjacent plot. In order to irrigate the first field, you need not irrigate the second, but may leave it fallow. But if you wish to irrigate the second, you must willy-nilly irrigate the one next to the water. Even though the souls of the Muslims did not ask for "water", since they are the intermediaries for all humankind, it was necessary to bestow it on them even before they asked. In the same way, God directly addressed the souls of the Muslims in pre-eternity, but his effective word reaches others if he is well-pleased with them, through their agency (especially that of the Prophet and Imams). In Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i's view, then, a primordial text, the Preserved Tablet or the Leaf, made of letters, influences the unfoldment of human existence. Human beings are, indeed, the embodiments of that preexistent text on earth. They are also subject to the same forces that shape the Leaf, being pulled upward toward the subtle, simple plane of the Universal Intellect, and earthward by the heavy gravity of gross matter and complexity. Each of the primordial letters out of which the world was made corresponds to both a name of God and to a plane of reality. His schema in this regard resembles, but is not identical to, the correspondences put forward by Ibn 'Arabi, who also held that the twenty-eight basic letters come together to form all things in the cosmos (I6). In a letter to Mulla Kazim Simnani, Shaykh Ahmad specifies these correspondences : Table Letter 1. alif 2.ba' 3. jim 4. dal 5. ha'

1. The Existential Letters Roman Divine Name A al-Badi' (Wondrous) B al-Ba'ith (Sender) J al-Batin (Hidden) D al-Akhir (Last) H az-Zahir (Manifest)

Metaphysical Level Universal Intellect

Universal Soul

Universal Nature Universal Matter Imaginal World

(16) Muhyi'd-Din Ibn 'Arabi, al-Ftrhihdt al-Makkiyyah [Meccan Revelationsl, 4 vols, (Beirut : Dar Sadr, n.d.), 11: 421-470; William C. Chittick, The Szrfi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-'Arabii Metaphysics of the Imagination (Albany : State University of New York Press, 19891, p. 128.


COSMOLOGIES OF SHAYKH AHMAD AL-AHSA'I

6. waw W 7. za' Z 8. ha' H 9. ta' T 10. ya' Y 11. kaf K 12. lam L 13. mim M 14. nun N 15.sin S 16. 'ayn ' 17. fa' F 18, sad S 19. qaf Q 20. ra' R 21. shin Sh 22. ta' T 23. tha' Th 24. kha' Kh 25. dhal Dh 26. dad D 27, za' Z 28. ghayn Gh

153

al-Hakim (Wise) Universal Body al-Mubit (Encornpasser) The Throne ash-Shakar (Thankful) The Footstool Ghani ad-Dahr (Wealthy) Zodiac al-Muqtadir (Powerful) Mansions ar-Rabb (Lord) Saturn al-'Alim (Omniscient) Jupiter a l Q h i r (Victorious) Mars an-Nnr (Light) Sun al-Mu~awwir(Shaper) Venus al-Muhsi (Reckoner) Mercury al-Mubin (Elucidator) Moon al-%bid (Grasper) Sphere of Ether al-Hayy (Living) Sphere of Air al-Muhyi (Reviver) Sphere of Water al-Mumit (Taker of Life) Sphere of Earth al-'Aziz (Mighty) Mineral ar-Razzaq (Nourisher) Vegetable al-Mudhill (Abaser) Animal al-Qawi (Powerful) Sovereignty al-Latif (Subtle) Jinn al-Jami' (Gatherer) Human Beings Rafi' ad-Darajat (High levels) The Universe

Shaykh Ahmad calls these letters "existential letters". When asked how each thing in the world could be governed by a divine name and letter, when there are only twenty-eight of the latter, he explains that the letters correspond to entire planes, which are universals, not to individual particulars ("). The Shaykhi emanations are starkly linguistic insofar as they are letters and they are divine Names and attributes, having the power of bestowing upon the world meaningfulness and therefore Being. The idea of letters as the stuff of cosmology, the means and form of creation, appeared in many spiritual traditions. It is present among the ancient Greeks, the Gnostics, both the Isma'ili and Twelver branches of Shi'ism, some Sufi orders, and in kabbalist thought (I8). In the theosophy of Suhrawardi (d. A.D. 1191) the great master is said to teach adepts by means of a mystical alphabet, written on a tablet (lawb). Indeed, repetition of these letters leads the seeker to a profound secret, and to a trans(17) Ahmad al-Ahsa'iIMulla Kazim Simnani,Jawami' al-Kalim, I, i, 9 : 138 ; see Rafati, "The Development of Shaykhi Thought", pp. 111-112. (18) See Henry Corbin, Auicenna andtbe Visionary Recital, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York : Pantheon, 19601, pp. 276-78 ; see also Kathleen R.F. Burrill, T h e a a t r a i n s of Nesimi, Fourteenth-Century filrkic Httn~fi(The Hague : Mouton, 1972).


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cendental, ecstatic state, which the unitiated cannot comprehend (I9). Letter-mysticism is also present in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, in regard to which Shaykh Ahmad maintained a very ambiguous relationship. He criticizes Ibn 'Arabi on some ~ o i n t sbut , he is clearlv ultimatelv influenced bv the spiritual scaffolding klaborated in the ~ndalusian's~ e c c a n~ evelaiions (al-Ftctzibdt al-Makkiyyah), and he quotes without disapprobation from The Perfect Man (al-Insan al-Kamil) of 'Abdu'l-Karim al-Jili (d. 1428), a major elaborator of Ibn 'Arabi's system (20). H e cannot accept the way Sufis tended to raise their masters to a Dosition that Shi'ites could onlv recognize in an Imam, and as a metaphysical pluralist he rejects existential monism and anything resembling pantheism. Much else in the Sufi heritage, such as the use of letters as symbols for divine creativity, is entirely acceptable to him. The correspondence of the letters to the metaphysical planes has an imaginative, visual dimension. Shaykh Ahmad informs us elsewhere that the shape of the Universal Intellect is that of a standing alif because of its simplicity. The Universal Intellect is first-created among spiritual beings, lacking time and duration, and devoid of lower spiritual and imaginal forms. He identifies it with the Pen, which wrote the destiny of all things upon the Preserved Tablet. The straight letter, alif, resembles a quill pen, so that the Intellect is both letter and writing instrument. In both cases, the primacy of writing is asserted, since the Pen or the Universal Intellect is the first emanation, from which all else emanates. Its color is white light (*I). The Universal Soul, or "Divine Soul" has the shape of the letter bd', and for this reason the Imam 'Ali is reported to have said, "I am the point beneath the ban'.That is, the basic shape of the letter for B in Arabic, like the hull of a boat, is shared among several Arabic letters, and these are differentiated from one another by the placing and number of points. O n e point beneath makes the letter into a B. The saying attributed to Imam 'Ali therefore indicates that he is the crucial principle (19) Shihabu'd-Din Yahya Suhrawardi, '.AL-ar-i Par-iJibrilnin hJajmtr'ih- i' Mz~saiznafat-i Shaykh-i Ishraq vol. 111, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Tehran : Academie Imperiale Iranienne d e Philosophie, 19771, pp. 216-217; Kazim Tehrani, "The Role of the Sage in the works of Suhrawardi", in Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism, ed. Parviz Morewedge (Delmar. N.Y. Caravan Books, 19811, pp. 191-92. For Suhrawardi and Illuminationism, see Hossein Ziai, Knowledge and Illzsminatio~z. A Stzcdy of Szshrawardi:~"Hikmat a/-I.shraq", (Brown University Judaic Studies Series 97) (Atlanta : Scholars Press, 1990) ;John Walbridge, The Science of Mystic Lights : a t 6 al-Din Shirari and the Illz~minationistTradition in Islamic Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass. : Han-ard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 1992) ; it was from Suhrawardi that Shaykh Ahmad derived his conception of the htrrqalya, the realm between the Platonic Forms and this material plane : Rafati, "The Development of Shaykhi Thought", pp. 106-lo7. (20) Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i, al-Ka.shkzil.2 vols, MSS Alif-9 and Alif-10, Kerman Shaykhi Library, on microfilm at the Un~versityof Michigan Harlan Hatcher Library, I : 39, 69 (21 ) Ahmad al-Ahsa'ifAbu'l-Hasanal-Jilani. 1 Safar 1224/18 March 1809,Jatucimi'al-KaIIYH,I, i, I1 . 142.


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of differentiation (perhaps even Jungian "individuation") that endows the basic, indeterminate form with significance. Shaykh Ahmad relates the process of emanation to the shapes of the letters, showing how each letter is transformed into the next. The letter ba' spreads out from the alif of the Universal Intellect (if one lay the alif down and curved up its two ends, it would gain the boat-like shape of a ba3 (22). Shaykh Ahmad, in addition to his acquaintance with the medieval Sufi literature, draws upon a fund of early Shi'ite speculations. H e wrote a commentary on a saying of the fifth Imam contained in the compendium al-Kdfi, that "God created a Name by means of unpronounced letters and by means of an unuttered word", which went on to identify this Name as the complete Word, in need of which the creation stands. H e identifies this created Name with the entirety of the worlds of Command and of creation. The world of Command has four levels, consisting of the divine Will, the Universal Intellect, the Universal Soul or Spirit, and Universal Matter. The world of creation overlaps with Command save for the divine Will and as we have seen has twenty-eight levels. This one Name that sums up being in its entirety is the Most Great Name, which is hidden and unpronounced. Each of the levels of the world of Command, as with the world of Creation, is associated with a letter of the Arabic alphabet (23). Elsewhere, Shaykh Ahmad identifies the letters as "elements" (Ar. ustugusat, from the Greek stoicheia). The Greek word stoicheion itself functioned as a homonym, naming elements as well as letters, and the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus had also seen the combinant elements or letters as constitutive of the universe. As Gershom Scholem pointed out, "Aristotle's succinct formulation : 'Tragedy and comedy come from the same letters', not only amplified Democritus' idea, but stated a principle which recurs in the Kabbalistic theory of the Torah ; namely, that the same letters in different combinations reproduce the different aspects of the world" (24). Shaykh Ahmad writes that each contingent thing in God's dominion (mulk) is composed of bodily elements if it is a body, of natural elements if it is a sphere, of substantial (jawhan)elements (22) The transformation of the alif, into the ba'is made explicit by the Shi'ite mystic Rajab al-Bursi, Masharig Anwdr al-Yaqin fi Asrd.r Amir al-Mu'minin (n.p., 19791, pp. 20-21. According to Shaykh Ahmad, the primary schema of twenty-eight levels does not exhaust his complex universe, for between each of these levels lie other intermediate planes (barzakh), each newly assigned one of the twenty-eight letters. Shaykh Ahmad appears to see the broken alif, for instance, as an intermediate stage between the upright alifand the supine ba'. The intermediate level of Universal Spirit has, in turn, the shape of the lam, the Arabic "L." The correspondences given in the chart, then, refer only to one letter set . ibid., 143-144. (23) Ahmad al-Ahsa'ilShaykh 'Ali b. al-Muqaddas al-Ahsa'i, 9 Safar 1220l9 May 1805, Jawami'al-Kalim, I1 : 312. (24) Scholem, On the Kabbalah, p. 77.


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if it is a soul, of ideational elements if it is an intellect, and of eternal (sarmadil elements if it is eternal. When the contingent thing disintegra-

tes, each of its parts returns to its elements, or the "letters of its matter ( h u r ~ maddatihl", f though they return in a mixed state. He recognizes two sorts of letter, those that lack any pointing, such as the Arabic equivalents of L or M, and those that are pointed, such as the letter equivalent to B. O n the Resurrection Day, he says, the pointed letters return jumbled together, whereas the unpointed letters return as complete words, contiguously (25). Not only are the letters at the beginning of creation, but it is they that underlie the mystery of the Resurrection. It is here that we begin to see the radical possibilities in Shaykh Ahmad's thought, for the ability of the letters to be recombined suggests that the world need not always be as it is, that it can in effect be spelled out differently, especially by a messianic figure. The plane of the Universal Intellect, the first emanation from the divine Will, is also called the One (wahid), since it is on this plane that number and specification first appear. O n this plane God pronounces nineteen letters, creating the lower nineteen levels of existence : the nine spheres, the four elements, the three kingdoms of nature, man, jinn, and angels. The nineteen letters form the words, bism Allah ar-Rahrnan ar-Rahim, "In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate", whereby the chapters of the Qur'an begin. This phrase is the universal manifestation of all the levels of contingent being, and for that very reason consists of nineteen letters. When the numerical value of the One (wahid) is added to numerical value of the higher divine plane of Unicity (ahad), the results is equivalent to the letters forming the name kaf, corresponding to the Roman K. The letter kaf, in turn, stands for the Divine Will. It is also the first letter of the Arabic phrase "Be !" (kun) whereby God created the universe (26). This kaf revolves, and from it emanate all things. A similar discussion occurs in the important treatise of Ibn 'Arabi, The Tree of Being (Shajarat al-Kawn) ( 2 7 ) . The contours of this linguistic cosmology are delineated by two sets of poles, simplicity and complexity, and immateriality versus materiality. The One is simple, and simplicity is superior in Muslim Neoplatonism to manyness. The One is ideal rather than gross and material, and the ideal (25) Ahmad al-Ahsa'i/YaSqubb. Q a s ~ mShirwani, 8 Sha'ban 1239/9 April 1824,Jauami' a/-Kalirn, I, ii, 1 7 : 231-32. The text here appears to be slightly corrupt, but I think this is a reasonable reconstruction. (26) Ahmad al-Ahsa'i/Sayyid Mirza Muhammad 'Ali Mudarris Yazd~.Jauami' al-Kalim, I, i i , 21 : 244-46 ; this answer was dictated by al-Ahsa'i to Sayyid Kazim Rashti, w h o served as his amanuensis (Momen, Works, p. 133). Wahid (One) equals 19, and ahad (Unic~ty)is 10, the sum of which is 29. The latter sum is equivalent to the letters kaf, alif,/a'that spell ka/, the name of the Arabic letter for K. (Z7) Ibn 'Arabi, Shajavat al-l(an~r2, pp. 42-44.


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is superior. How, then, does one bridge the contradiction between the composite and tangible cosmos on the one hand, and the spiritual O n e on the other ? Letter mysticism proposes a hierophanic alphabet as the mediating principle, for letters partake of the characteristics of both extremes in the spectrum of being. Letters are ideal constructs, but represent physical sounds. In medieval Arabic linguistics letters were considered as equivalent to phonemes, which again stresses their ambiguity as mental constructs referring to an acoustic phenomenon. An unpointed letter is simple, but gains meaning through combination (whether with pointing or in words), just as the O n e becomes humanly meaningful only through the emanations of successively more complex levels. The poetic and dream-like quality of letters as constitutive of the world is immediately apparent, but as cultural constructs they would appear to fail Ricceur's test for the authentic symbol insofar as they lack a cosmic dimension. It is here that the old Greek practice of calling both the elements (earth, air, fire and water) and the letters of the alphabet stoicheia becomes important. For Shaykh Ahmad, as well, the letters are elements, so that letter mysticism in this Greco-Arabic tradition is not only cosmological linguistics but also atomistic physics, and a natural, "cosmic" dimension to the alphabet as symbol can therefore also be discerned. The other symbol to which Shaykh Ahmad appeals in this treatise is more obviously a "cosmic reality", a natural phenomenon that, as Ricceur has said, both manifests and signifies higher realities P8).The world-tree, a powerful mythological image in many cultures, has especial resonances for mystics in the world religions, for it immediately suggests the spanning of earth and s k y ; more, it speaks of development, of the growth of a towering complex being from a tiny kernel. The Indo-European root derz~ is the origin of both the English word "tree" and the word "true". "Druid", the name for holy men in Celtic Europe, means the "knower of the tree (or the true)" (deru-wid). In ancient Iranian mythology, preserved in Zoroastrian texts, the Saena tree that stood in the midst of the cosmic Lake Vourukasha was said to be the source of all seeds. In this fabulous Tree of Healing (vispbbish) nested the Saena bird, with the head of a dog and the body of a fowl, which from time to time flapped its enormous wings, sending the multifarious seeds of the Saena tree flying over the earth, upon which they landed and from which they grew into the vegetation that covered it. In Islamic mysticism, many elements of this myth were taken over. The Saena bird, for instance, became for Suhrawardi and Faridu'd-Din 'Attar (d, ca. 1230) the "Simurgh" (a contraction of Saena meregh), and they see it as symbol of the soul's mystical unity with God. It is said that its haunt is the mystical mountain of Qaf (a transformation (28) Ricceur, Symbolism, p. 11


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of an Iranian mythic geographical symbol) beyond the world-sea (i.e. Vourukasha). Kazem Tehrani has pointed out that for Suhrawardi, the tree of all seeds is associated with a return of the soul to the "first form" (shakl-i avval), identified with the nest of the Simurgh, a conception that differs slightlv from 'Attar's notion of the mvthical bird as a mirror in which thevsoui sees itself. The Iranian idea of the Saena tree was probably mediated to Shaykh Ahmad through writings of such Iranian mystics, and it has for him, as well, connotations of the soul's return to its primal, pure estate (29)>. Shaykh Ahmad in his mystical and theological anthology quotes a passage from "one of the learned", about how God created the Tree of Certainty (shajarat al-yaqin), from which he in turn made the light of Muhammad bloom from one of its branches in the shape of a peacock, which praised God for seventy thousand years. After this time, God created a mirror in which it could see itself, and the cosmic ~ e a c o c kthen bowed to God five times, thus originating the five daily prayers of Islam. God created from the light of Muhammad the spirits of the believers, and their station in life was determined by which part of the Prophet's body of light they first saw upon coming to consciousness (30). The origins of this cosmological myth may plausibly be seen to lie in ancient Iranian mythology, with the Saena tree as the Tree of Certainty, the Saena bird or Simurgh as the peacock, and the five Zoroastrian daily prayers as the bird's five prostrations. In other Middle Eastern scriptures, such as the Bible and the Qur'an, of course. the storv of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden involved s tree has been doubled, so that in Eden stand cosmic trees. In ~ e i e s i the a tree of life and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Qur'an reconsolidates them into one, the Tree of Eternity (shajarat al-khuld), and it is from this tree that Adam and Eve pluck the forbidden fruit (Qur'an 20:120-121). The tree in paradise is called Tuba or blessed (31). The most elaborate commentary on the idea of a cosmological tree in Islam comes in the essay by Ibn 'Arabi, already referred to, entitled The (29) Tehrani, "The Role of the Sage", pp. 197-98. See al-Ahsa'i, al-Kashkzil, I1 : 192 ; elsewhere Shaykh Ahrnad cites Salman al-Farisi in saying the Persian/Zoroastrian names of the months come from the appellations of angels, such as Bahman, Shahyar and Khurdad : alKashkzil, I : 51-52. For Sirnurgh and the Saena tree see John R. Hinnells, Persian Mj~thology (New York: Hamlyn, 1973); Mary Boyce, History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1 (Leiden. E.J. Brill, 1975) : 88-89, 137 ; V.F. Biichner, "Sirnurgh", Encyclopaedia of Islam, 4 vols. (Leiden : EJ. Brill, 1913-1936, 1st edn) ; M. Streck and A. Miquel, "Kaf", EI 2 ; Faridu'd-Din 'Attar, Manfiq at-Tayr, ed. M . Javad Shakur (Tehran : Ilharn, 1984) ; trans. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, The Conference of the Birds (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1984) ; Suhrawardi, "'Aql-i Surkh" and "Safir-i Simurgh" in Majmzli'h, 111 : 226-239, 314-332. (30) al-Ahsa'i, al-Kashkzil,I : 325 ; this tradition is mentioned in Wensinck, Tree andBzrd, p. 38. (31) Wensinck. Tree and Bivd. p. 33.


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Tree of Being. Therein, complex correspondences are established between the branches of the tree and the growth of elements of the universe such as the Reality of Muhammad, the will of human beings, belief, and the senses. The Tree of being has its beginning in a seed from God's creative word kun !(Be !), which in turn derives from the primal, rotating letter kuf. From this K comes not only being, but also, when perverted, unbelief (kufr). The symbol of the preexistent tree appears elsewhere in Shaykh Ahmad's writings. H e says, for instance, that the Prophet and the Imams exist both on the level of unconstrained being or preexistence, wherein they are the Complete Word and the Most Perfect Man, and on the level of constrained being. O n this second, limited plane, the cloud of the divine Will subsists and from it emanates the Primal Water that irrigates the barren earth of matter and of elements. Although the divine Will remains unconstrained in essential being, its manifest aspect has now entered into limited being. When God poured down from the clouds of Will on the barren earth, he therebv sent down this water and it mixed with the fallow soil. In the garden of the heaven known as as-Saqzirah, the Tree of Eternity arose, and the Holy Spirit or Universal Intellect, the first branch that grew upon it, is the first creation among the worlds. H e here invokes the saying of Imam Sadiq to the effect that the Intellect is the first-created of spiritual beings, and, for the idea of primal water, he quotes the verse, "and His Throne was upon the waters" (Qur'an 11:7). Shaykh Ahmad identifies the divine Will, a preexistent attribute essentially unconnected to the world, with the rain-cloud that irrigates limited being so as to produce the eternal tree, the first branch of which is the Universal Intellect (32). Above, the Universal Intellect was depicted as having the shape of a straight line, the letter A or alif, which is of course also the shape of a straight branch. The visual dimension to Shaykh Ahmad's symbology is essential to understanding its transformations. In another essay h e says that God created a tree beneath the Throne called al-Muzn (the Rain-Cloud). From this tree a droo of rain fell to the clay of corporeal matter below, causing plants to grow. Anyone who ate of the fruit of these plants, whether believer or unbeliever, produced a believer from his loins. (As an upholder of free will, he denies that this myth implies predestination). The heavenly, nourishing tree is contrasted to the evil tree of Zaqqum, which subsists in hell (33). AS Wensinck noted, "The symmetrical features of this cosmological system become particularly prominent when we remember the tree Tuba which covers the upper (32) Ahmad al-Ahsa'i1Mulla Muhammad Rashid, 19 Sha'ban 1225119 September 1810, Jawami' al-Kalim, I, ii, 18 : 233. (33) Ahmad al-Ahsa'i/al-Isfahani, End Jumada I 1223124 July 1808, Jawami' al-Kalim, I1 : 108 Cf. Ibn 'Arabi, Shajarat al-Kawn, pp. 60-61.


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part of the Universe downwards to the lowest heaven. The tree Zakkum, on the contrary, originates in the lowest pit of Hell and climbs upwards along its divisions. So the Universe is enclosed between these two cosmic trees" (39). The cosmic tree in Shaykh Ahmad's exposition recalls the miraculous self-renewal of plant life, which in turn points to the way in which the universe itself is periodically regenerated. As Eliade noted, the association of mythical symbols such as Yggdrasil and the Saena tree with life, immortality and knowledge often led to their being woven into quest myths of heroic, initiatory ordeals (3i). The voyage of the bird of the human soul to the Saena tree, where self-knowledge is acquired, exemplifies this tendency. The tree has psychic and poetic aspects as well a natural ones. At some ~ o i n t he s talks of the branches of the tree as Intellect and Soul, and we s i w above that human beings are described as the Leaf in micro: cosm. The primacy of the intellect-branch on the tree is a prescriptive statement about the ideal ordering of the human psyche. The images of the divine Will as a rain-cloud and the Tree as the product of an irrigated divine garden growing from the soil of paradise are mythopoeic transcriptions of ideas he more often expresses in the abstract terms of Muslim Neoplatonism. I have suggested that Shaykh Ahmad's treatise for Mudarris gains some of its force from the manner in which he reads two cosmological symbols, the tree and the letters, against one another. These are united by the figure of the leaf, which refers both to the foliage of the myrtle and the page or Preserved Tablet upon which the divine text is inscribed. The tree is a cosmic symbol drawn from nature, whereas the alphabet is a product of culture, so that these two symbols contrast with even as they complement one another. Shaykh Ahmad creates his poetic and imaginative cosmology by juxtaposing the idea that the world is like an organism with the notion that the world resembles a language. Like an organism, it develops over time, growing from a simple seed into an ever more complex being, putting out ramifying branches. Like a language, it is a system made up of a finite number of discrete units that are combined and recombined according to regular laws. By appealing to both symbols in the same treatise, indeed, Shaykh Ahmad powerfully transcends the dichotomy between nature and culture. If the natural world is spelled out by primal, divine letters, then natzcre is czcltzcral. If humans are microcosms of the world-tree's leaf. then culture is natural. Nature is cultural insofar as it, like an orthographic system, "makes sense", and letter symbolism thus acts powerfully to reject (34) Wensinck, Tree and Bird, p. 35. (35) Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R Trask (New York : Harcourr, Brace and Company, 19591, pp. 147-51.


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an understanding of the universe as random and meaningless. It was argued by the great anthropologist, Claude Lkvi-Strauss, that myths in primitive culture were often about the transition from nature to culture, and that the contradiction between the two was expressed symbolically, so that nature is represented by fresh food that spoils whereas in culture raw food is cooked (36). In contrast, Shaykh Ahmad's cosmologies, the product of a highly sophisticated and literate intellectual tradition, deny the nature/culture contradiction by challenging the validity of this binary opposition and showing how each of these opposing concepts demonstrates characteristics of the other. The identification of the microcosm, the human soul, with the macrocosm of the primal leaf even undermines the distinction between the self and the world. In transcending these contradictions, Shaykh Ahmad forcefully underscores the sacredness of the universe, which reflects in its orthographic and organic meaningfulness the creative design of the divine Mind. To deny that the universe is haphazard is also to face down the dark psychic forces constantly threatening the stability of the human mind, and is to insist that the microcosm can be as orderly as the emanated macrocosm. As Ricoeur has said, "I express myself in expressing the world, I explore my own sacrality in deciphering that of the world" (37). The juxtaposition of an organic with an artificial symbol poignantly makes the point that humans are, like the cosmos itself, both natural and cultural, both biological and linguistic. Thus, the mythic peacock nesting in the world-tree is presented with a mirror in which to see itself, just as the human soul finds in the sacrality and order of the cosmos a steadying reflection of itself. In addition to this psychological dimension, the poetry of his language, his resort to color codes and vivid metaphor, gives his discussion an appeal that perhaps could best be understood as aesthetic. The close parallels between Shaykh Ahmad's mystical cosmology of the letters and the gematria of the Kabbalah is striking. Moses Cordovera of the sixteenth-century Safed school in Ottoman Palestine saw the Pentateuch or Torah as made up of divine letters, themselves manifestations of the divine light, which go on to form the names of God and ultimately worlds and worldly beings, as the letters undergo a "fall" or materialization (38). The gnostic motif of the material universe as "fallen" or evil is missing in Shaykhism, though gross matter is seen as inferior to subtle spirituality. But similarities between the two movements clearly exist, and they derive in part from a common Mediterranean heritage of ancient Jewish conceptions, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism, which percolated into (36) Claude LPvi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1983). (37) Ricceur, Symbolism, p. 13. (38) Scholem, a 1 the Kabbalah, p. 71.


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the Shi'ism of the eighth century and into medieval Judaism. The possibility that Muslim mystics and Kabbalists in places such as Muslim Spain, Isma'ili Yemen, and Ottoman Palestine influenced one another also cannot be dismissed (39). Beyond such a shared legacy of ideas, Kabbalism and Shavkhism d e v e l o ~ e dsome of their resemblance because the masters of both employed a similar spiritual logic in reworking this heritage. For religions of the Book, the orderedness of religious law, the "creative design" and intentionality of God's Word, stand in contrast to the apparent chaos and intuited nonlinearitv of some natural ~ h e n o m e n aand even of the raw human psyche. By insisting that the world, and the mind, is like human language, with its generative grammar and its systemic relatedness, adherents of letter mysticism tame storm and flood, drought and earthquake, fear and neurosis, finding them to be regulated by rules and constants no less than is the system of writing that is believed to underly them. Although Shaykh Ahmad innovated by reading somewhat mythic symbols against one another, in an Islamic tradition often hostile to myth and to any but the most abstract symbology, he largely remained within the boundaries of his tradition. The appeal of letter-mysticism in theosophy may have been similar for Muslim mystics to the attractions of abstract geometrical patterns in art, for both sorts of adornment avoid anthropomorphism and are compatible with Islamic iconoclasm. O n the other hand, the letters can be endowed with an almost mythic aura, as when the Universal Intellect is said to have the shape of the alif. As for the world-tree, Suhrawardi, 'Attar and others had naturalized elements of Indo-Iranian mythology within Islamic mystical literature. The radical aspect of Shaykh Ahmad's thought is apparent in its revisionism and its dynamism. O n the one hand, he clearly was motivated by what Harold Bloom called the "anxiety of influence", the desire of creative thinkers to somehow escape the conceptual and literary structures erected by their forebears where these are perceived as limiting ("0). Shaykh Ahmad's acceptance of much in Ibn 'Arabi's metaphysics while sharply criticizing the Andalusian Sufi himself, and his love-hate relationship with previous Shi'ite theosophers such as Mulla Sadra and Mulla Muhsin Favz Kashani demonstrate this anxietv no less than do his his doctrinal innovativeness and his idiosyncratic scripture commentary. Shaykh Ahmad worked from within a tradition that had in many ways ossified after over a millennium of elaboration, and one on the defensive. Arab Shi'ites suffered rule by the Ottoman Sunnis in Iraq and al-Hasa, and they were increasingly attacked by Wahhabi tribes in the late eighteenth century. Shi'ite Iran had seen a century of turmoil, with the Sunni Afghan occupation from 1722 and its chaotic aftermath, and an encroaching West (39) Idem, Kabbalah, p. 16 and notes 116 and 117. (40) Cf. Bloom, Kabbalah and Crificisni,pp. 33-35, 71-79. 95-126.


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in the form of Britain and Russia. Shaykh Ahmad's millenarianism and rebellion against staid literalism aimed at solving the problem of his belatedness and at reinvigorating a beleagured Shi'ism. His graphocentrism or insistence on the writtenness of the cosmos serves to open up space for new interpretations, since in Arabic the written word, lacking vowels, is far more ambiguous than the spoken. His essentially Sufi metaphysics and his emphasis on experiential religion, on dreams and visions and meditations, created space for popular involvement in the Shaykhi order - which became something very close to a Shi'ite Sufi order. O n e central message in his writing is that the world can be starkly different from its present state. H e forsees an eschatological rearrangement of the letters that constitute the world, for in an orthographic cosmos the placing of a single point differently could entirely change the meaning of a word or a statement. His world-tree, too, develops organically, suggesting the posibility that it will come to a new fruition. All great masters are bequeathed spiritual images and repertoires by their forebears. Their importance for us lies in the way they activate and realize these images, just as the accomplishment of great musicians lies in the subtlety, intellectual clarity and emotional intensity of their performances. The mystic is composer and performer at once, and Shaykh Ahmad's rendition of the repertoire is among the finest in all of Islamic thought. Juan R.I. COLE (Ann Arbor, Michigan)


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Rival Empires of Trade and Imami Shiism in Eastern Arabia, 1300-1800 Juan R. I. Cole International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2. (May, 1987), pp. 177-203. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-7438%28198705%2919%3A2%3C177%3AREOTAI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-X

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